Russia’s Wagner boss: It’s prisoners fighting in Ukraine, or your children

Russia’s Wagner boss: It’s prisoners fighting in Ukraine, or your children
Media caption,

Watch: Russian mercenary group recruits detainees

A Russian mercenary boss has defended the idea of sending prisoners to fight in the Ukraine war after a video showed him recruiting at a prison.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner group, said those who do not want to send convicts to fight should send their own children instead.

Earlier, leaked footage showed him telling inmates they would be freed if they served six months with his group.

The Wagner group is believed to have been fighting in Ukraine since 2014.

In a statement published on social media after the video went viral, Mr Prigozhin said that if he were in prison he would “dream of” joining the Wagner group to “pay my debt to the Motherland”.

He added a message to those who do not want mercenaries or prisoners to fight.

“It’s either private military companies and prisoners, or your children – decide for yourself.”

However, the statement did not explicitly address the video or admit that it was genuine.

The UK’s defence ministry said the recruitment of prisoners indicated that Russia was suffering from a “critical” shortage of combat infantry troops.

The video – verified by the BBC – would confirm long-held suspicions that Russia hopes to increase troops by recruiting prisoners.

Russian law does not allow prisoners to be freed in exchange for military or mercenary service, but Mr Prigozhin said in the video that “nobody goes back behind bars” if they serve with the Wagner group.

“If you serve six months, you are free,” he said. But he warned potential recruits against desertion, adding: “if you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we will execute you”.

The video appears to have been taken in the prison’s exercise yard. It is not known who filmed it, when, or how it was released.

The BBC geolocated the footage to a penal colony in Russia’s central Mari El Republic. Facial recognition tools suggested the recruiter was Mr Prigozhin, and this was separately confirmed by multiple sources.

The BBC has previously identified links between the group and Mr Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” – so-called because he rose from being a restaurateur and caterer for the Kremlin.

In the past, the Putin ally has denied a connection with the organisation.

But in the leaked prison video, the oligarch can be seen telling inmates that he is a “representative of a private war company”.

“Perhaps you heard the name – Wagner Group,” he asked the group of prisoners.

The group, whose origins are shadowy, has been deployed in Ukraine, Syria and several African conflicts.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Yevgeniy Prigozhin with Vladimir Putin in 2010